To deter the misuse of its digital images, Playboy Enterprises is using an age-old tactic: big-dollar lawsuits.
The publishing empire was awarded $3.7 million in federal court today in its lawsuit against Five Senses Productions, a subscription-based service that filtered Usenet newsgroups for sexually explicit images. Five Senses was found liable for illegally distributing 7,500 Playboy pictures through the service, which costs $5 per month. It is unclear if Five Senses is still operating that division of its business, which includes publishing CD-ROMs.
The Southern California Net operation was raided last April by federal marshals who seized thousands images from computers owned by Francesco Sanfilippo, founder of Five Senses.
Sanfilippo could not be reached for comment, but in a past interview he said his service worked automatically, grabbing pictures posted by other Net users. He said he had no way to screen out Playboy's images. Playboy Enterprises countered that he also was selling CD-ROMs containing its images, and that turning a blind eye to copyright violations is not an adequate defense.
"This judgment is a significant victory in our efforts to combat copyright infringement on the Internet," Michelle Kaiser, intellectual property counsel for Playboy, said in a statement.
Playboy Enterprises has been unrelenting in its campaign to rid the Net of unauthorized uses of its famed nude pictorials and its trademarked slogans. And courts have ruled in favor of the company before.
In December, a federal court in Texas awarded Playboy Enterprises $439,000 plus attorneys' fees in the company's case against Webbworld Incorporated, a fee-based daily service that, like Five Senses, filtered thousands of sexually oriented photos from newsgroups.
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"Webbworld did not function as a passive conduit of unaltered information," wrote senior judge Barefoot Sanders in his opinion. "Just as a merchant might repackage and sell merchandise from a wholesaler, so did Webbworld repackage and sell images it obtained from various newsgroups."
Earlier this month, the company slapped a $5 million trademark lawsuit on Terri Welles, who graced its magazine cover in 1981. Playboy is charging that Welles infringed on its trademarks by posting the terms "Playmate of the Year" on her e-commerce Web site and by allegedly placing the term in the code of her site, which drives traffic from search engines.
On its own site, Playboy charges up to $60 per year for access to original photos and real-time Playmate chats. The company's emphasis on protecting its digital copyrights no doubt stems from the desire to make the Net a pivotal piece of its future earnings. Like most new media publishing ventures, Playboy's copyrighted content is the cornerstone of its online business strategy.
The ruling against Five Senses today gives Playboy new ammunition for future copyright battles. In addition, Congress is working on new copyright protections for digital works. The House Judiciary Committee yesterday cleared a bill being pushed by the software and music industries to ratify international treaties that extend intellectual property rights to the Net.